An overview of the History of Lismore by Donald Black

This island is something of a geological freak – composed almost entirely of Dalradian limestone. Crossing from South-East to North-West are basalt dykes: one in particular projects from a cliff-face and is at least 70ft high. There are no mountains, no surviving peat bogs and little heather: the limestone based soil is fertile therefore much of Lismore’s flora is unique. A raised beach extends around most of the coast-backed by cliffs. Lismore is situated over the “Great Glen” geological fault which crosses Scotland and earth-tremors are fairly common – one reached 3.9 on the Richter Scale!

Earliest evidence of man
A polished stone axe-head was found at Balnagown, Lismore in 1974 – described as Neolithic and of rare beauty and craftmanship. It was dated by Edinburgh museum to 3500 BC and is of Appin stone: (presently on exhibition at the Heritage Centre). From the Bronze-Age fourteen burial cairns survive, most of them in the south western end of the island, except one – Cnoc Aingeal – (Fire Hill) which is about three miles from the north end. This cairn is relatively untouched and is the largest in Lorn – if not Argyll, the rest have been robbed of their stone over the centuries by succeeding races.

Iron age
The Broch at Tirfuir is evidence of the presence of the Picts on Lismore, there are possibly two others, though ruined. (The Gaels called the Picts ‘Cruithneach’). The Broch circular building is reasonably well preserved, the walls are about 15 feet high and the internal passage which is a distinguishing feature is clearly visible. This is within 10 feet thick walls and still very impressive after 2000 years – certainly a commanding sight.

There are also the remains of six “Duns” which are said to date from the migration of our Gaelic-speaking ancestors from Ulster (from the 4th to the 6th century AD). Their names are as follows- Dun Chruban, Dun Fiart, Sean Dun, Dun Slochd a Bhridhe, Dun Chuilean, Dun Mor and dun Chillchearan.

Cill Ian (Kilean), Cill nan Suidh (Burial place of the Kings), and Cill Andrais (Cell of Andrew) are mysterious circular burial grounds with a bank and ditch round their circumference. They are dated rather uncertainly as early Christian. Last interment at Cill nan Suidh was of a Lady who was said to be descendant of Kenneth MacAlpin, first King of the united Picts and Scots.

A few years ago a Bronze armlet was found within a couple of hundred yards of Cill nan Suidh, during house renovations. The finder received a substantial reward. It was dated 1st – 2nd Century AD and a very rare find. This artefact can now be seen in the National Museum in Edinburgh. A replica is kept in the Heritage Centre on the Island.

Early Christian period
The migration to Dalriada from Ulster in the 6th Century introduced Christianity to much of the west of Scotland, brought by numerous saints e.g. Columba, Moluag, Mehac and Ninian among others.

It was Moluag who came to Lismore in 561 and was said to have been educated at the Monastry of Beanachar in Ireland and may indeed have been a contemporary of ‘Brendan the Navigator’.

Aged about 40 years, he reached Lismore in 561 AD where, with his Apostolic Twelve, he set up a Monastic centre which was known as his ‘Muintiras’. He set up similar centres at Rosemarkie in the Black Isle and Mortlach near Elgin. His journeys also took him to Skye, Rassay, Mull and Tiree. Lewis was also visited and there is a church dedicated to him at the Butt of Lewis, known as the ‘Teampal Mor’. From there he sailed to Iceland.

Moloug was said to be the Patron Saint of the Isle of Man. Truly he was just as important as Columba in the early Celtic church but is not as well known. Of course not being of noble birth and not having a biographer as a relative – was a distinct disadvantage. Maybe you needed to be of the ‘right people’ and have a good ‘press’ even in these distant times.

Medieval period
Lismore was chosen to be the Seat of the Bishopric of Argyll and remained so till the 16th Century. The cathedral was built sometime between 1250 and 1350 AD. For a short period (1610 – 89 AD) this was an Episcopalian Cathedral. Subsequent to 1749 the Choir of the original building has been used as the Parish Church of Lismore – a parish which stretched as far as Duror and Ballachulish and also included Kingairloch.

The most famous incumbent was James MacGregor, Dean of Lismore, who compiled the anthology of Gaelic Poetry known as ‘ The book of the Dean of Lismore’.

The Viking era
These much feared warriors started to appear around the western sea-board of Scotland from about the 8th century onward. According to oral sources, one of their first deeds on arrival on Lismore was to lock the monks in the early Chapel and set fire to them.

Coeffin – a viking prince is reputed to have built a castle which still bears his name: the surviving ruins are of a later date and were erected by the MacDougalls of Lorn.

There is a poignant legend which has survived through the oral tradition, telling of the lost lover of Beothail (sister of Coeffin) who perished in a distant war. A beautiful tale of unrequited love which is 1000 years old – we’ll tell you this legend some day!

Land owners – 13th & 14th century
During this period the island was owned by the MacDougalls of Dunollie till their defeat in battle by Robert the Bruce. There after much of their estates were forfeited and given to various septs of the Cambell Clan – Glenorchy, Ardnamuchan, Combie and later Lochnell. In these medieval times this small island was much sought after and at the centre of things, both politically and ecclesiastically – certainly very important in the general history of Lorn and Argyll.

Industry – farming
This has always been important – a prime industry historically because of the basic fertility of it’s limestone based soil. Systems have varied from the very intensive cultivation of the 18th and 19th centuries when barley and to a lesser extent oats, were the main cereal crops. I don’t think Lismore ever became as dependent on potato growing as many other islands as there was a meal-mill to each of the fresh water lochs.

Lismore men had the reputation of being good horsemen. Usually neighbouring crofters worked together as when two horses were required for ploughing. The run rig system, where the township worked the land in common, came to an end in 1800. Three or four cows, one horse and a few young cattle for selling, constituted the “subsistence” and family based agricultural system of the past 200 years.

The present system is based on cattle and sheep raising and the only crop grown is silage. Stock from this small island are in great demand through out Scotland and as far South as Yorkshire. In passing, I must tell of a market I was at in Stirling (1996) when two of the highest priced lots were from Lismore and Iona (both monastic sites). Surely this tells something else about Moluag and Columba and what their other priorities were after spreading the Gospels.

Industry – lime burning
For centuries a “cottage industry” it was not put on a commercial basis till 1800, and in very odd circumstances. Let me explain – there was a Roman Catholic seminary founded on Lismore at this time by a certain Abbot Chisolm: he also founded the lime burning industry to finance the project.

The quarry and seminary were adjacent at Kilcheran. Sir Walter Scott sailed by and made the sarcastic remark that the quality of the lime was superior to the quality of the students – both ventures came to an end in 1840.

Thereafter the work continued at five different sites – Salen, Port na Morlach, Alisra, Sheep Island and Port Ramsay.

Salen quarry, the largest, functioned till 1934. Work at Port Ramsay ceased at the outbreak of World War One.

These kilns were installed by the estate owners and rented to the operators.

During the ‘heyday’ of the lime industry there were 24 locally owned “smacks” employed shipping this product. They carried from 30 tons burden up to 100 tons – alternating the lime with slate from Ballachullish and Easdale. The last two smacks were the “Mary and Effie” owned by Captain Alan MacFadyen and his son John Alig, she traded until the late 1940’s. The other was the “Lady Margaret” owned by John MacCorquodale and his brother Dugald which traded till the mid thirties – truly the end of an era.

The population would probably have remained at around approx. 500 – 600 for centuries but exploded to 1740 in the 1800’s. There seemed to be an influx of non-indigenous surnames at this time, due to the expanding lime burning, also flax-workers who would be training local labour. (There was a fledgling flax-industry established during this period.

Indigenous surnames
Carmicheal, Black (MacIlleDhuibh), MacColl, Livingstone, Buchanan, MacCorquodale, Stewart, MacDonald, MacGregor, MacFadyen, Campbell. All of these are still represented on the Island.

Other surnames – Keith, MacClaurin, MacGlashan, Graham, MacIntyre – have all vanished through emigration, eviction and economic necessity. Their descendants return seeking long-lost roots from all over the world and it is gratifying when we can lead them to the townships their ancestors were forced to leave.